‘They say that shadows of deceased, Do haunt the houses and the graves about, Of such whose life’s lamp went untimely out, Delighting still in their forsaken hosts’. – Joshua Sylvester (Poet, 1563-1618)
I have seen that many of us are simply appalled by the very mention of ghosts. They do not possess the nerve to talk or hear about a haunting. I do not know whether it is the concreteness of death, that a ghost of a dead person perplexes them so, or it is that, the thought of waking from the dead as a possibility baffles them to such a great degree, that a mere mention of ghosts or a haunting sends them bolting for the door.
Whichever the case, the living are susceptible to ghosts without a trace of doubt. None can escape them for they are all around us. They are sitting among us day after day, talking to us, listening to us. The only difference is that some of us are endowed with the sight that enables us to see them and to communicate with them. While the others are simply blind and deaf to their existence around us. As far as a rational explanation is concerned, I remember a quote by James Robertson the author of Scottish Ghost Stories. ‘…there are things in this world that we do not fully understand or cannot fully explain. It may be that there is a “rational, scientific” explanation that will unfold in due course. It may equally be that reason and science are not the keys to every locked door.’ (pg 9. Introduction)
I belong to the circle of believers who accept the existence of ghosts and just like Robertson states, reason and science are not the answer to everything that unfolds on the face of this earth. Why wouldn’t I be a believer? Since I was a child, I have been exposed to ghostly appearances and on more than several occasions I have been told that there is a sign before someone is going to die. And of course I know for a fact that the dead try to communicate with the living. As if that wasn’t enough, I have had bizarre encounters myself over the years. It is enough when I say that in my family we have all seen ghosts. Although not had a full fledged conversation with them, we have had close encounters with such shadows which have both been daunting and perplexing. My mother and my brother in particular have the strongest affinity to spirits. They both have seen and experienced things that are far beyond reasoning. But I shall elaborate on that later.
Every tradition has a way to communicate with the dead. In Christianity, they have mediums, in Buddhism and Hinduism we have the Shaman and the Tantric, and in Islam they have special Maulavis who can communicate with the dead. In the western world, communicating with ghosts was a profitable business yielding great success and bigger bank balances in the past. Bereaved families would pay any sum to spend even a tiny bit of a moment with their dearly departed. Ghost hunters or Ghost busters or whatever they may have called themselves also included hoaxes and frauds. Please allow me to give benefit to my assumption when I state that over the years, this business of communicating with the dead ceased to be a lucrative one when frauds exceeded genuinely gifted communicators in number.
In the east, this association with the dead was never seen as a business transaction. Perhaps it was due to the upper hand of religiousness in the east that communicating with the dead was solely left on the hands of tantrics and shamans who came through as men who had very little material needs. A small sum of money and some food always worked.
There is a community in the hills that still believes in paganism. They have witch doctors instead of priests and once a person dies, the witch doctor invokes the dead to possess him. The deceased if dead under mysterious circumstances have even been said to have pointed out his murderer through possession. At other times, the dead can simply communicate with the living members and say the things that they did not have time to say while they lived. In the area where we were living at the time, there was a young girl who died during childbirth. What I am relating here is an account narrated by one of the witness herself. The girl who died belonged to one of those animistic religion so on the evening of her death, the witch doctor was summoned. The ritual started with the witch doctor beating the drum and humming a doleful melody in an empty room lit only by a single candle. A body of a sow was hung from the ceiling with legs tied up as blood slowly trickled down from its open mouth on the banana leaf spread directly below the sow’s head. After a long while, the candle started to flicker and the witch doctor suddenly flung the drum on the floor, bent down and slowly rose up wailing. The sound that came from him, belonged to the dead girl. Through the witch doctor she conveyed messages that she had not been able to convey on her deathbed. She even said that she had a pair of brand new pillow cases tucked away in her cupboard, and that she wanted to give it to her sister. A pair of new pillow cases were extracted from her cupboard and given to her sister as wished by her. She said that she regretted deeply for having left the living world so early and that she did not like where she was. ‘It’s cold and dark here’, she had said and she asked her family to light a butter lamp for her each day so that she could see where she was going. Who in a rational world could have imagined that a dead girl would talk through a witch doctor? Of course there are no answers for questions raised. It is a matter of experience and only those eyes who saw the whole ritual are in a position to stand up for discussion against skeptics. One question the skeptics may try to find an explanation to is, how did the witch doctor know about the existence of the pillow covers? None in the family had any clue about those pillow covers. Such are things that still occur in this wide waking world below the very nose of rational thinking. One may start to debate over it, but if I were you, I would simply move on to the next narration.
Recently our driver gave me a brief insight on how, in their tradition, a recently dead person is fed by the living. He comes from one of the caste of people who comprises of the original castes of Kathmandu valley. Thirty years ago, when his father died, as tradition would have it, he had to go the place where his father was cremated every night at about eight in the evening. Eight o’ clock during those days almost meant the middle of the night he explained. A butter lamp was left burning on the place of cremation and he was supposed to carry food for the dead and a small ladder made out of bamboo. The ladder was to be laid against a stone and at the bottom of the ladder the food was to be placed. To this day he says that he cannot put a lid on to the memory of what he witnessed that particular night. In the blackness of the night, with only a small space illuminated by a single butter lamp on the very ground his father was cremated, he arrived with a tantric priest and left the food and the ladder. Then as it was required of him, he had to stand at a distance and watch, which he did along with the priest. The priest then started uttering a prayer and a spell. In a short while, the lamp flickered and there above the ground the tiniest of man appeared. He was about 15 cm tall, was a split image of his father. He was floating in the air until he stood on top of the stone, climbed down the ladder and reached the food which he relished with great delight. Our driver recalled that he stood rooted on his spot not believing his eyes while the priest was humming the spell intensely. He could not even run away because it was believed that he who runs on seeing the spirit would be hunted to death. Thirty years after the encounter he still says that, he never saw anything like that again.
Even the dead are hungry. This is a plainly accepted belief among the Hindus and Buddhists. I remember vividly that when I was around eight years old, my mother used to take us to her parents’ house which upon the demise of my grandparents had been passed on to both my uncles and their family. During dusk, I would see both my uncles offering a small cauldron full of aromatic incense in the balcony that overlooked a sinister looking bamboo cluster that swished in wind at night against the window, waking me up in the middle of the night. I never did like that house as I always felt like I was been watched. I remember being perturbed around the house during all my visits. Coming back to the offering, I asked my mother why they offered so much incense every single evening. My mother explained that there are so many spirits of the dead that roam this earth hungry and in search of food. Since they were as thin and as transparent as air, they could not perform the act of eating so they usually filled their emptiness by the sense of smell. We, belonging to the family of buddhist monks, she said, had to offer incense in order to help the spirits satiate their hunger. If one had the sight, she said, one could see spirits come in one by one, smell the incense and leave silently. I was too young then and was I frightened to my wit’s end. I remember curling up beside my mother at night and not being able to sleep a wink. The only thing I could see in front of my eyes the entire night were, groups of vapour like torsos belonging to both men and women, both old and young, pushing and shoving to smell the incense cauldron stood burning, while the menacing bamboo bush swayed and swished in my ear until the wee hours of the morning. As the daughter, my mother did not have to carry on the tradition of offering incense and although a noble act, I couldn’t be more thankful. At that age, the least thing I wanted was heads popping up and down outside my window in the middle of the night.
Special buddhist scriptures also mention that the spirits of people who died an untimely death, roam around the most, seeking for a doorway. Specially the ones who committed suicide is believed to never find redemption. There is a belief that such spirits are doomed to roam until the time they were actually meant to die. The scriptures say that a human being’s body is a temple in which thirty two gods and goddesses reside in every single nerve, in every single vein. To kill oneself thus, one must kill each one of the thirty two gods and goddesses and that itself is the biggest sin one can commit. The spirit of such a person is then cast into the darkest world between this world and the other. It is said that, the place is devoid of any light, any food and water. It is said that the spirit is naked and cold and bereft of any company. When someone in the living world performs a ritual in the name of that particular person, they say that the spirit sees a bleak light leading to a small path, which leads them back to the human world where in reality, they are no longer welcome. Their frustration then is made corporeal through the many haunting episodes that living people narrate to one another.
A person once loved and cherished suddenly becomes a thing deeply feared if seen visiting the living world after his or her death. There is not a single lace of doubt when I say that I have deep respect for the dead and it is the existence of ghosts that gives light to the thought, that there is a life after death. As living, breathing human beings, we simply have to accept their existence, their nature of materializing out of thin air and make peace with it, rather than debating over it until you’re out of your breath deeming it a visual fallacy.
‘ All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.’ - Arthur Shopenhaur (German philosopher – 1788 – 1860)
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